Character  &  Context

The Forces that Divide Us

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By Tessa Thwaites

As young children we are told that “hate” is a strong and loaded word; that we shouldn’t use the word unless we are absolutely sure that we mean it; and that we probably actually mean just intense “dislike.” But is “hate” not simply equivalent to an experience of intense dislike?

During "The Forces that Divide Us: The Roles of Social Dominance, Hatred, and (Meta) Dehumanization in Real Intergroup Conflict" session at the SPSP Annual Convention, Jay Van Bavel of New York University argued that the distinction between dislike and “hate” – especially as expressed towards racial, religious, or ethnic groups – is not just a matter of degree. Rather, the distinction between hate and dislike is a matter of kind. Hate connotes something uniquely moral.

Van Bavel supported this conclusion from a content-coding analysis of language used on hate-group versus complaint-group websites. Although the two types of websites did not differ on the percentage of negative language, they did differ on the percentage of morally-laden language: hate group websites used significantly more moral language to refer to their values and practices. 

Knowing that hate is something uniquely moral and thus intensely powerful, we may proceed to ask about the consequences of “hate.” That is, how does “hate” get expressed in the real world? Many theories on intergroup derogation and discrimination would suggest that the ways in which hate is revealed would be predominantly through subtle or implicit means, due to an individual’s concerns with social norms of equality and a desire to be perceived as accepting and open.

However, Emile Bruneau of the University of Pennsylvania demonstrated that hate may actually manifest through overt and blatant processes of dehumanization. Indeed, individuals in an ongoing ethnic conflict (such as between Hungarians and Roma populations) will explicitly respond that an outgroup member is less evolved or more animal-like.

These blatant discrimination beliefs are also captured in the work presented by Arnold Ho from the University of Michigan. In the modified Social Dominance Orientation (SDO-7) scale, Ho and colleagues measure both the subtle tendencies to counter egalitarian attitudes (SDO-E) and the overt discrimination tendencies (SDO-D), such as would be reflected in Bruneau’s blatant dehumanization findings.

The finding that these dominance and dehumanization processes are overt and observable encourages a consideration of how a dehumanized individual would respond to the experience of being dehumanized. To address this question, Nour Kteily of Northwestern University proposed that individuals who consciously experience dehumanization – a process he refers to as “meta-dehumanization” – would respond in kind though reciprocal dehumanization. This reciprocal dehumanization, in turn, predicts the individual’s support for aggression towards the outgroup. Ultimately, these relationships result in a dehumanization-specific pathway extending from the perception of having experienced dehumanization (meta-dehumanization) to negative intergroup actions and attitudes (such as hate).

In summary, although much research productively focuses on the implicit and subtle forms of discrimination and intergroup hostility, complementary research considers the persistent, overt and blatant processes of “hate,” dehumanization, and meta-dehumanization that continue to exist today.

The nuances of these blatant processes have yet to be fully explained. For instance, how do the varieties of dehumanization processes (ranging from perceiving the “other” as an animal, to perceiving the “other” as a number or an object) differ in their pathways from perception to action?

Additionally, and perhaps most pressing, do interventions of humanization help to alleviate or reverse these pathways of conflict? The work by these scholars and their colleagues has made crucial steps towards answering such questions, so as to ultimately illuminate that the pernicious actions and attitudes of hate and dehumanization continue to walk among us.

Tessa Thwaites, Columbia College Class of 2016, Columbia University


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Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

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